Magic Island nostalgia

This will be, for once on this publication, a rather non-political post. I had considered making this a lengthy Facebook comment, but figured a site such as this one would be the far more appropriate venue.

The Houston Chronicle has a terrific commemoration of “Magic Island,” the one-time dinner theater magic club located at Highway 59 and Greenbriar. The club/restaurant opened in the 1980s at the height of the pomp and ostentatious extravaganza that accompanied the oil boom. After years of decline, it closed its doors in 2008 following a fire caused by Hurricane Ike. Although it was supposed to reopen, that never ended up happening.

Magic Island piques an unique sense of nostalgia in me. Growing up, it was my absolute favorite place in the world. As a little kid, I went there twice with my family in fairly rapid succession; once for my grandfather’s 70th birthday and the other for — I think, at least — my brother being a National Merit finalist. I was five or six years old at the time, so everything was twice as big and twice as impressive. Anything that the adults may have found to be tacky or gaudy, I found absolutely mesmerizing and sensational. They must have had a good kids’ menu or something, because I always remembered the food with great fondness as well.

Then, for many years, we never went back. I get the feeling that, for my parents, the entire experience may have been forgettable, but not for me. When they would ask me, years later, where I would want to go to eat, in the whimsical way that parents always humor their children with decision-making responsibilities, I would invariably suggest Magic Island (well, there or Luby’s, but that’s a completely different story). It didn’t matter if it was a Saturday night right before Christmas or a Tuesday evening when everyone was just too tired to cook, my idea for sustenance would be Magic Island.

My romanticizing of the restaurant only increased as the years went on. Starting in the 4th grade, I began attending school at St. Stephen’s in Montrose. Every morning, as my dad would drive me to school on his way to work, we would exit 59 on the Greenbriar/Shepherd exit, and thus pass right by Magic Island without fail.

Magic Island became part of the legend that was Houston in my mind, one of the landmarks upon the pedestal I placed the city on. There was the big blue skyscraper, seemingly standing all by its lonesome, that my dad called “Transco” but my teacher called something else. There was the big white building, which almost looked abandoned, that my dad told me used to house this great newspaper, one that was bought and shuttered by its anti-intellectual competitor. Most importantly, there was Magic Island, the great infallible restaurant representing all that was perfect with Houston.

Finally, after eight long years, I went back (for another one of my grandfather’s birthdays). I was taller, wiser and more cynical. Everything looked a little sadder and everything looked a little cheaper. A few months later, Ike hit and the club closed its doors forever.

In some ways, I’m glad that I went back, but in other ways I wish I hadn’t. If there is anything that government, journalism and politics have all taught me, it’s that ignorance is truly — more than bliss — enviable. And my ignorance at five or six years old was, like most children, rather intense. In 2000, everything seemed invincible: myself, my family, my city. Magic Island, fittingly created during an era when everyone apparently believed the city was invincible, was a poignant representation of that.

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